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                                The Craft of
                             The Stringer
                                      by Erik Roth

                        N e c ha b e o , ne c car e o , ne c cur o
                       [ I have neither property, want, nor care ]

                                        Motto of the Stringers

                    Th e y sh o t so w e ll in th a t ty d e,
                    Th e y r stri n g e s w e r of silk e ful sur e,
                    Th a t th e y ke p t th e str e t e s on ev e r y sid e
                    Th a t bat a y l e did lon g en d u r e .
                                                        ADAM BELL

         Originally archers made their own strings and some were also made by the archer's
female relatives or lovers who could use their distaffs to advantage in spinning and
twisting the strands. Women's hair might be used in emergencies, but after guilds came
into being, most bowstrings were made by Longbow Stringers, and Stringers who made
the strings for smallbows, stonebows, and crossbows. Bowstrings were variously made
first of linen flax and later of silk or hemp though some crossbow strings were made of
    Mediaeval bowstrings were probably usually of the single loop type, now known as
the 'Flemish' string. LARTDARCHERIE refers to the single loop string tightly twisted of
three strands of fiber or thread, the loop to be as small as possible and stretched with a
stone weight. Ascham describes this type as consisting of a tightly twisted main portion
with a reinforced rat tail at the lower end and a reinforced loop at the upper end. The lower
end is affixed to the lower nock by a timber hitch that Ascham calls the bending, or
perhaps in some cases by a series of half hitches as with Viking bows. The Susaaen bow
had two holes in the bow tip in addition to a nock, and a Swiss wood sculpture of 1600
shows a string without loops or reinforcement bound through holes in the bow tips. Some
American Indians used a similar method and Japanese traditional archery uses bowstrings
cut from a ball of uniform string tied at one nock by the same timber hitch used by early

     Crossbow strings of sinew or thread were made as double loop strings which may
also have been used on handbows as pictured in the Luttrell Psalter. No ancient
bowstrings have been preserved, even in the Danish bog finds.

      Silk, the finest, strongest and most costly material came by the Silk Road through
Rome or to Khazar trading posts in Viking Scandinavia although Viking bowstrings were
normally of linen. Saracens preferred raw silk, the strongest natural fiber in the world. ROI
MODUS   specifies that the string should be of silk and nothing else for three reasons;
because it is strong and endures a long time without breaking; because when the threads
thereof are properly united together and well set on, it is so stiff and hard; that it will
drive an arrow or bolt farther, and strike a heavier blow than any string made of flax or
hemp: because it can be made of whatever strength and thickness the shooter pleaseth.
Gaston de Foix tersely agrees that the string must ever be of silk. LARTDARCHERIE
recommends strings of raw undyed silk and LA FACON found them especially suitable for
flight shooting.
   LA FACHON recommends       carefully picked and well chosen female hemp, the coarse
male hemp being worthless for this purpose. In England hemp was used from the mid 15th
century and well chosen English hemp, not ‘tubbed’ hemp nor Colleyn [Cologne?] hemp
was specified in 1499. English military archers were supplied with hemp strings for their
yew bows. John Smythe in CERTAINE DISCOURSES writes; and the strings being made of
verie good hempe, with a kind of water glewe to resist wet and moisture; and the same
strings being by the archers themselves with fine threed well whipt, did also verie seldome
breake. Surprisingly, although Chinese and Japanese stringers could easily obtain silk,
they made bowstrings of hemp.

      In deference to the guilds, Ascham expresses no personal preference. 'Now what a
stringe oughte to be made on, whether of good hemp as they do nowe a days, or of flax,
or of silke, I leave that to the judgement of stringers, of whom we must buy them.
 Bowstrings throughout the world have commonly been about 1/8" in thickness, and the
Mary Rose arrows have nocks 1/8” wide. The string must be strong enough not to break
in use. Beyond that, mediaeval bowstrings were made thinner for distance shooting,
thicker for slower but more dependable short range shooting. Thick strings are easier on
the bow, absorbing some of the shock of the release. Let us consider the making of the
'Flemish' string of linen thread, as it was made by archers no longer able to get hempen
'Flemish' string of linen thread, as it was made by archers no longer able to get hempen
ones from Belgium at the end of the nineteenth century. Old strings were taken apart to
see how they were made. As the motto of the Stringers suggests, little equipment is
       Flax bowstrings had been used from the time of Edward I and into the
Renaissance. Because flax has short fibers, it is best used in the form of thread. Barbour's
linen shoe thread made in Ireland has been found convenient in sizes #10 or #12. If
another size must be used, it should be tested for strength by tying the end to the hook of a
spring scale and noting the reading when the thread is pulled to the breaking point. #10
thread breaks at about 10 1/2 pounds. Thirty strands make a string that, whipped, nicely
fits a 1/8" nock and is strong enough for a 50 pound bow. It is advisable to make the string
of strength three times the draw weight of the bow to allow for the stress of arrow release
or for possible uneven tension of threads.

  LARTDARCHERIE      specifies a three strand string which is more nearly round than a two
strand one, allowing a proper fit for each nocking. Cut three skeins of 10 strands each
15” longer than the length of the bow between nocks and six strands a foot long. Lay the
ends flat and scrape with a knife to taper them, then, holding the skein and including the
short strands, pull out the threads to form 8 inches of even taper and being sure the threads
are all parallel. Lay in three additional threads 8” long in each skein, likewise tapered, to
reinforce the nock and wax the skein ends heavily for about 20 inches. At this point it is
helpful to lay in a coloured thread the length of each skein as a tracer, to aid in getting an
even twist.
  Now hold all three ends parallel and close together with thumb and forefinger of the
left hand eleven inches from the free ends which point right, and twist three inches of
rope. This is done by taking the skein farthest from you with thumb and forefinger of the
right hand, and twisting hard clockwise while bringing it across the other two skeins and
tucking it under your left thumb. When you have three inches, bend the little rope into a
loop. Wax the short ends point together with the corresponding long ones middle one first,
and continue twisting the rope until the ends of the short strands have been twisted in. Tie
a temporary piece of thread around this to prevent untwisting. If the loop is to be used
with a round bow tip or horn nock with a side notch it will have to fit more closely as
LARTDARCHERIE      suggests, especially if the string is of silk, because it will stretch
considerably with use. This must be allowed for or the loop will not remain in place.

   Hang the loop on a hook or nail, and comb out the strands, first with the fingers, then
with a coarse comb. Wax the three strands to the end. Beeswax or a mixture of beeswax
and resin like that used by archers would have been used. Three parts wax to one part
resin is good. No thread should cross another. Roll each strand between thumb and
forefinger to get it round and twist all three clockwise. If the tracer thread is used it is
easy to see if the twist is the same in all three strands. Now line up the three strands
parallel, and twelve inches from the end, lay in another three 12 inch threads in each
strand and begin another rope, the bending. When you get to the very end, tie an
overhand or a wall knot. Put the loop back on the hook, give the string a good pull, and
twist from right to left until it makes a complete turn on itself for every inch or so of its
length. The string should now be set on a bow to stretch it, and a temporary thread tied
where the end emerges from the timber hitch. Linen stretches very little.

      Now with a piece of thin leather folded over the string, rub briskly to smooth the
string and melt the wax into the fibers. After removal from the bow, the end beyond the
bend can be untwisted, the strands tapered by cutting threads at intervals, retwisted and
tied off. LARTDARCHERIE suggests an inspection. And if you wish to know if a string is
good, untwist the middle of it, and if the three strands are separate and distinct, it is a
good one, provided always that when the string is twisted up again, it is hard and firm, for
the harder it is, the better it will be.

     A double loop string such as a crossbow string is made by winding a thread around
two pegs until it reaches the desired thickness, then tying the two ends of the thread. The
distance between the pegs is crucial as there is no way to alter the length of the completed
string except by twisting the entire string, which is sometimes impractical. Crossbow
strings had extra looped skeins added as reinforcement at the loops. These skeins were
securely whipped to the string at both ends by a series of half hitches, the whipping thread
then bound to form the loop and spiraled down the tautened string to the middle, at which
point it was closely whipped in a long enough section to prevent chafing of the string
against the tiller.

       While linen strings are good and serviceable, I have found silk strings so much
stronger and more pleasant to work with, that I would prefer to make them exclusively if
silk were more readily available. They are stronger not only because silk has a greater
tensile strength for its size and weight than linen, hemp, or any other natural fiber, but
also because the smooth threads may be more effectively combed out to get equal tension
and because the individual thread that may be under greater tension will stretch a little
more rather than break. One must buy strong thread such as is used by shoemakers, and
test its breaking point on the spring scale to determine the minimum number of threads
necessary. The bowstring is made much as a linen one, but if thin and made for a strong
bow, should have enough extra reinforcing threads at loop and tail to avoid unduly
marking the bow and the loop must be made small enough to take stretching into account,
if silk, about the size of a pencil for a sidenock on a slim tipped bow. It is also necessary
to allow for string stretch which can be as much as 25 percent. I get about 10 percent.
Simply form the string shorter but with a longer area of reinforcement in the tail. After a
short period of use the string will have done its stretching and will retain its length. Then
the part of the tail past the bending can be untwisted, shortened, tapered and retwisted.
The drawback of silk strings is their noise. A thin string on a powerful bow twangs like a
great harp. I have also made strings of raw silk right off the cocoon, and that is more of a
       The formula of the glue used on Flemish strings in the nineteenth century was lost
upon the death of the last longbow stringer in Belgium who knew the secret. He took it
with him to the grave. However, a thin solution of hoof glue which is more flexible than
hide glue has been used to stiffen bow strings. This may be the water-glewe referred to by
Smythe. As it is not waterproof, this could explain the need for archers to keep their
bowstrings dry.

  The composition of the gum and the water-glewe may have been similar to the
mixture used on bowstring loops by the Turks, the silk bowstrings themselves being
wound directly off the cocoon around two pegs to the thickness “of a goose quill,” like
the double loop bowstring. The loops were tied into the ends of this skein by a special
knot. The recipe is given by Kani, author of an old Turkish book on archery.
   5 parts beeswax
   10 parts resin
   20 parts fish glue

    The fish glue could be used by itself if it had the right properties. Like the other
ingredients the fish glue would also be waterproof if it were isinglass, made from the head
of the sturgeon.    A finish is applied to the main body of the string but not the loops or rat-
tail. Mediaeval archers were concerned about their bowstrings getting wet. Elizabethan
gun proponents claimed that rain made the strings slack and the Genoese crossbowmen at
Poitiers were said to have had this problem, but linen and hemp are stronger wet than dry,
and excessive dryness is a danger to bowstrings.

    Some modern bowmen varnish their bowstrings while others find beeswax sufficient.
The 15 th century Hastings manuscript advises that arming points made of fine twine like
that used to make crossbow stringes, must be wexid with cordeweneris coode, so they
would neither recche nor breke. The coode,, used by leatherworkers to prevent stretching
or breaking may have been used on bow strings. tt may have differed from sowters code.
Coode or code was made up of two or more of the ingredients: pine pitch, rosin, beeswax,
oil. Wax was not always included but Drayton’s poem says well waxed strings.

    The string is now complete except for whipping which was done by the archer rather
than the stringer.

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